Detroit Tour de Force
A Walk in the Park with George Roberts, Quicken Loans Community Fund Director of Public Spaces and Philanthropy Pro
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
November 29, 2018
Talk about the perfect spot to meet up with NEXTGen Detroiter, George Roberts: it’s everywhere . . . in the office buildings, lofts, coffee shops, hot spots and streets of the city, on the bike lanes of his commute from Woodbridge, in the synagogues and Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit, at his monthly “Whiskey Club” organized by The Well, in the halls of Federation – literally and virtually, everywhere you go, you’ll find George at work and at play.
Park professional by day, community connector in every spare moment, networking and generously giving of his talents and energy, George returned to his hometown of Detroit from New York three years ago to join the Quicken Loans Community Fund which leads the Quicken Loans Family of Companies philanthropic strategy. As Director of Public Spaces, he oversees investments in the redevelopment, management, programming and operation of parks, plazas and other public spaces in and around the Detroit downtown area. Bedrock’s real estate holdings include about 100 properties.
The Quicken Loans Family of Companies has committed more than $5.6 billion to acquire and develop more than 100 properties in downtown Detroit and given more than $150 million to Detroit-based community organizations and programming since 2010. The city’s largest private employer, the Quicken Loans Family of Companies has about 17,000 team members – many of whom not only work, shop and dine downtown, but also live and play downtown.
Count on George for networking, setting the tone and manner for “chance” meetings – or pleasant surprises – hitting the sweet spot between business and entertainment. By his invitation on a late afternoon in November, we meet George in the hotel lobby of The Siren 1509 Broadway Street.
If you have yet to see the transformation of the historic Wurlitzer Building – office tower turned boutique hotel – step into the lobby of The Siren for a quick pick-me-up brew from Populace Coffee or head up to the panoramic rooftop. Lauded by National Geographic Traveller Magazine as the Game Changer hotel of the year, The Siren stands emblematic of “the city’s unstoppable energy and innovation.”
“The Candy Bar in the hotel reminds me of a little spot my fiancée, Sarah, and I love in New York,” George notes. “The building was literally dropping bricks, when Ari Heckman, of New York-based developer ASH NYC, saw the opportunity and scooped the place up.”
It’s no coincidence that we meet George sitting in lobby of The Siren with Jess Katz – career coach, consultant of Reboot and heading for a Fellowship program with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “Jess has been my guide to Jewish Detroit and a mentor to me in a big way,” says George, as he enumerates the ways she has led him to his various community service roles.
Currently, George is on the Executive Board of NEXTGen Detroit, focusing on attracting and engaging young adults in the NEXTGen/Federation world. Additionally, George serves on the Board of The Well and as V.P. of Programming of the Founders Junior Council of the Detroit Institute of Arts. A rising star with a passion for Israel, George is a past participant in Federation’s Becker-Marcus All-Star Leadership Mission and a Co-Founder of Federation’s Israel Engagement Committee; additionally, in 2018, he participated in the prestigious ROI Global Summit in Jerusalem. On the Board of the Roosevelt Park Partnership, George is currently working on the redevelopment of the park in front of Michigan Central, now owned by the Ford Motor Company.
Prior to his role with the Quicken Loans Community Fund, George led public space projects across North America with Biederman Redevelopment Ventures. “In my estimation, Biederman is the nation’s global leader in redeveloping parks and public spaces. I worked with the team that turned around Manhattan’s Bryant Park, the company’s most famous project – often cited as one of the world’s best urban parks and the definitive model for public spaces.”
Though George loved the work and pace of New York, he knew all along that he would bring his experience back to Detroit. “The scale of our city is perfect. There’s so much to do – and it’s all so accessible. In Detroit, you can make an impact on any project you set your heart on, and find people you can count on to be there for you.”
A walk-n-talk-about Detroit with George: What’s up and coming
For our walk in the parks, we luck out with a break in the weather. It’s a sunny afternoon – ideal for a stroll across John R. towards Capitol Park.
- “This is part of my ride from Woodbridge every morning,” George explains, mentioning that he is a “functional” cyclist and the proud owner of a Detroit Bikes C-Type.
Stopping at the intersection of Farmer and John R., we have a snapshot of cranes in the skyline, new hotels on the rise . . . and the holidays soon to light up the streets.
- “Up the next block, on Library Street, is the Skillman Library, a favorite project of mine. We commissioned interior design students from the College of Creative Studies to think about the ways we work today and re-imagine how we can invest in our libraries to become new options for the public to use as community co-working spaces.”
Along Woodward Avenue
If you ask George, the experience of shopping on Woodward Avenue this winter is more exciting than it has been in many years. There’s lots in store for holiday shoppers looking for local artists, makers, entrepreneurs and a cool experience at 1441 Woodward Collective – and 1520 Woodward, where Detroit artist Lisa Spindler has her studio.
A stroll past WeWork Merchant’s Row will take you to John Varvatos, Detroit is the New Black, House of Pure Vin, Bonobos, Warby Parker , Under Armour and Nike among many others. New on Woodward Avenue this holiday season is the Shinola Hotel featuring the clothing stores, Good Neighbor and Madewell, and new stores from Shinola and Drought.
From the Downtown Synagogue to Capitol Park
- “I feel blessed to have many rabbis as part of my life in Jewish Detroit. To me, this is emblematic of the diversity and unity of our community. I often find myself working on projects with Rabbi Dan Horowitz of The Well, Rabbi Ariana Silverman of the Downtown Synagogue and Rabbi Yisrael Pinson of Chabad. I grew up at Temple Beth El and have worked with Rabbi Megan Brudney at the Beth El Community Transformation Center in the former Temple Beth El on Woodward. Recently, Sarah and I have enjoyed getting to know Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new rabbi at Rehillat Etz Chayim. And, of course, I still have close ties to Rabbi Joshua Bennett who led me on Teen Missions to Israel as a teen and as a staff member.”
- “Standing at the corner of Grand River and Griswold, you see a vibrant neighborhood growing around Capitol Park. Years ago, this district was mostly vacant. Today, the view is very dramatically different. Here on the street, we can admire the Downtown Synagogue’s new mural, painted by world-renown artist Bunnie Reiss , a massive mural by Beverly Fishman and the mural by Detroit’s Charles McGee – an exceptional example of his work, commissioned by Bedrock in partnership with the Library Street Collective for our first ground-up residential building, 28 Grand.”
- “Of course, I can’t walk down Griswold without pointing out one of my all-time favorite places to hang out – Larry Mongo has kept the distinct community vibe of the neighborhood with his famed Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. The neighborhood, itself, has attracted new residents in new developments, led by Bedrock and other development companies led by civic and community leaders like Todd Sachse, Rich Broder and Lee Hurwitz.”
- “The retail and dining that has emerged – remixed, rethought for the 21st Century and repurposed for beautiful new spots – includes Detroit Bikes, Eatori – a specialty market where you can grab a bite – and Eli Boyer’s Lovers Only Burgers.”
28 Grand – Capitol Lofts
- “When we started thinking about what life would be like for people working downtown – living in a 275-square foot loft – we realized that a public space like Capitol Park would serve as a hub – their front yard, their backyard, the space where they’d hang out, walk their dogs, dine out and entertain their friends.”
Capitol Park: a new hub for Jewish Detroit
With its line-up of glass enclosed holiday market kiosks and a new heated lodge all decked out for the holidays and operated by Jeremy Sasson, Capitol Park invites a leisurely stroll-through. Just “passing by,” on her way to the Synagogue, Rabbi Ariana Silverman, also a resident of Woodbridge, joins the conversation, “It’s exciting to see more and more families with kids now in our neighborhood. And that includes the Jewish community, our next generation of Detroiters.”
- “Capitol Park is special to me,” says George. “Developing Capitol Park is a project that allows me to bring together my professional life, my personal life and communal life. Sukkah by Detroit is a perfect example of an astonishing success;working with friends and partners from Bedrock and the Quicken Loans Community Fund, the Downtown Synagogue, The Well, Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit, Hazon Detroit, Chabad and Hillel of Metro Detroit, we created an innovative Jewish community project to activate a downtown public space, thanks to the generous support of the William Davidson Foundation.
Rabbi Silverman agrees, “It was inspiring to see how all those organizations were able to partner so that the whole was greater than the parts. Sukkah by Detroit succeeded far beyond our expectations as a way to expose Judaism to everyone and make it accessible . . . and fun.”
- “Because of its location, Capitol Park is emerging as a place the Jewish community has adopted,” Rabbi Silverman stated, “In planning the candlelight vigil for Pittsburgh, given 24-hours notice to organize and mobilize the community, it was clear that Capitol Park was the one place to be.”
Cadillac Square, getting ready for Menorah Lighting in the D
- As George observes, “Detroit is a place for hearty people – happy to be out and about during the winter, especially if you give them something to do and a good reason to come celebrate.”
Towering above the Holiday Market shops and the festive scenery of Cadillac Square, a 26-foot Menorah stands as the centerpiece of 8th Annual Lighting Ceremony, hosted on December 2nd by The Shul Chabad-Lubavitch of West Bloomfield, in partnership with the Jewish Federation, Chabad of Greater Detroit, Quicken Loans, Bedrock and other supporters.
Beyond adding a new level of entertainment to the shopping experience, the Cadillac Square Market offers a pipeline for start-up retailers and businesses seeking to open a brick-and-mortar in a Bedrock building or other space around the city of Detroit. New and returning ventures this year include 248 Studio, Ashley Gold, Beirut Souk, Nostimo Kitchen to name a few.
Our final stop takes us to Woodward Esplanade and the Spirit of Detroit Plaza. The Esplanade is a heavily used new linear park, created by converting unused road medians into public space with gardens, pathways, art and movable seating. The space culminates in the new Spirit of Detroit Plaza. As George explains, the space was created by closing down Woodward Avenue to cars between Larned Street and Jefferson Avenue and adding new seating, programming and other amenities. “While the space is still experimental, it makes the definitive statement that our city streets aren’t just for cars – but for people, too.”
“As Dan Gilbert likes to say, ‘Money and numbers follow, they don’t lead.’ I feel incredibly fortunate to work for a company that is for more than profit. Beyond our work in public space, the Quicken Loans Community Fund has a team that thinks about housing stability, a team that thinks about education and employment, and a team that thinks about growing and supporting business and entrepreneurship. We also have a team that motivates and mobilizes our Team Members – 17,000 strong in Detroit and about 30,000 around the country – as entrepreneurs, volunteers and stewards of our city.”